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Myth-makers : Old and New


Romila Thapar

THE NEW COMPARATIVE MYTHOLOGY
By C. Scott-Littleton
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975, xi plus 271, 3.65

ASCETICISM AND EROTICISM IN THE MYTHOLOGY OF SIVA
By
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1971, xi plus 316, 50.00

VOLUME I NUMBER 3 July - September 1976

The study of myth has undergone a sea-change since the mid-nineteenth century when it came into vogue. Between Freud and Levi-Strauss it is now open to a vast span of interpretation. Not all the points along this span have as yet encroached on to the study of Indian mythology, but as these two books under review indicate, the impact is certainly beginning to be felt. When Max Muller first analysed Indian mytho­logy, it was in terms of the then current fashion of seeing mythical personages, gods and heroes, in terms of natural phenomena such as the sun, the moon, the dawn and so on. Thus the famous legend of Pururvas and Urvashi which, as a theme, was re­peated ad infinitum through the variety of Sanskrit literature, was interpreted as a nature myth symbo­lizing the disappearing Dawn chased by the Sun in the early morning. The association of myths with solar symbols and events was particularly popular at the time. Max Muller's theories were convincingly debun­ked by Andrew Lang who demonstrated that the solar mythology and naturist analysis derived more from the preconceptions of those studying the myths than the cultural contexts of the myths would allow. Muller's theories did not survive the twentieth cen­tury, except in India where they continue to hold ground among those who are unaware of the post-­Muller dimensions to the study of mythology. Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, made the next impact with its stress on the relationship between natural and, supernatu­ral phenomena. The theme of the dying god or the ritual sacrifice of the king is frequently referred to in recent writings on Indian ritual and myth. Fra­zer in turn gave way to a more sharply sociologically oriented approach to mythology. In the study of Indian mythology it is perhaps Georges Dumezil who stands as the inheritor of both the traditional interpretation and the new approach. The latter was largely due to the fact that he was influenced by Durkheim and it is claimed that there are ele­ments even of structuralism in Dumezil’s analyses. If the Muller-Lang debate lasted for two decades and resulted in the toppling of existing theories, Dumezil stands as an equally controversial figure, the centre of a vehement and articulate debate among those working on Indian mythology and religion. But curiously, the debate so far ...


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